Samurai II: Vengeance Review

Wandering samurai Daisuke is on the warpath and it looks like there won’t be a single bad guy left in all of feudal Japan when he’s finished. His motivation will no doubt be more familiar to those who played the first game already, but stepping into Samurai II: Vengeance fresh also makes for a compelling experience. I relished in watching the layers of Daisuke’s history and goals gradually peel back in the form of comic book panels between stages.

While nothing here is likely to surprise anyone accustomed to fiction set in feudal Japan, it’s great to see so much devotion to narrative and one can’t help but chuckle at bits of irreverent macabre humor sprinkled into the art stills. Samurai II‘s story panels are occasionally marred by typos that can’t always be attributed to clever characterization, but nevertheless, even RPG developers on this platform might take a lesson or two away from MADFINGER’s presentational flair.

Samurai II is a pure action game at heart; don’t go into it expecting exploration, platforming or crazy wall jumping. Its grim, unyielding focus remains on Daisuke’s mission to slice and dice anyone who steps in his way. At the player’s disposal are a virtual joystick on the left-hand side of the touchscreen and three virtual buttons on the right-hand side, all of which can be moved around to the player’s liking via an in-game options menu. Two of the virtual buttons allow quick, weak slashes and stronger, slower blows with Daisuke’s katana that can be chained into specific combo attacks — a situation immediately reminiscent of such PlayStation 2 classics as EA’s Lord of the Rings action games and Konami’s Castlevania: Lament of Innocence. The player will make prodigious use of the third button to quickly dart among enemies or roll away from attacks on short notice.

The game’s one design hiccup becomes apparent at the outset: the virtual joystick will prove just a tad small for some players’ liking. Small enough, that is, for the player’s thumb to obscure it and thus guide Daisuke in an unintended direction. Familiarity resolves this problem over time. It’s difficult to tell whether MADFINGER could expand the button’s size because its relative smallness belies a wide radius of movement, allowing the player to determine whether Daisuke should creep or jog in any direction — I use the words “creep” and “jog” because Daisuke’s movement reminds the player that he’s not a ninja in running shoes, but a samurai in flip-flops being careful not to trip over his extremely sharp sword.

During combat the three virtual buttons will bear the brunt of the player’s work. The two attack buttons cause Daisuke to dash toward the nearest living enemy while delivering a sword strike, and beyond that the roll button keeps him out of harm’s way. In most battles the virtual joystick is important inasmuch as the player can efficiently roll him in the intended direction.

As Daisuke chops up enemies and bonus barrels strewn throughout each level’s environment he accumulates “Karma,” which can be traded for more powerful combos and health upgrades at any time. Enemies tend to take quite a beating from his katana, so the graceful finishing moves at the end of successfully executed combinations – which might knock an enemy down before the coup de grâce or are at least more powerful than Daisuke’s regular attacks – certainly come in handy. There’s also a random chance that Daisuke will deliver a critical auto-kill strike, a situation denoted by the game’s suddenly going into slow motion. Learning to take advantage of these opportunities, which might have to be wasted on dodging if another enemy stands at the target’s side, becomes a major part of the game’s fun factor.

Not that Daisuke is supernaturally capable compared to his foes by any means. It’s impossible to spam his most powerful combos, as that violates the core combat principle that will keep him alive: rush in, deliver an attack, get out. The vast majority of Samurai II‘s enemies are presented in an arena setup, which means Daisuke finds himself locked into small sections of each level while a scripted number of enemies spawn in to waylay him. The fact that Daisuke has to manage multiple enemies at any given time requires the player to exploit offensive opportunities as they arise, with much darting through enemy crowds.

Samurai II is deceptively easy for casual players to get into thanks to a gradual ramp up in challenge, but the last few levels are filled with truly heart-pounding tests of player endurance likely to satisfy challenge seekers even on normal difficulty. I would not be surprised if one or two iPhones are snapped in half over this game, so if you’re addicted to overcoming stiff opposition and have a penchant for expressing frustration through feats of superhuman strength, consider yourself warned! On balance, the game fairly introduces enemy types gradually so the player can acclimate to the vulnerabilities of each. Just remember that making it through the last two levels strictly requires patient exploitation of this built-up knowledge.

MADFINGER’s most laudable accomplishment is effectively managing the game’s rising difficulty through a checkpoint save system and ingenious use of puzzles as “cooling off” periods. There are no health replenishing items in Samurai II; instead, the game refills Daisuke’s health meter and saves player progress automatically at certain points, usually after enemy encounters. Thus, the player never loses a sense of forward momentum even when it’s Daisuke’s blood that sprays all over the touchscreen, and this contributes to the game’s fundamental addictiveness.

Sandwiched between enemy-filled arenas are obstacle courses that become increasingly sophisticated as Daisuke’s journey progresses. Even the most challenging of these provides a relaxing respite from mortal combat, as they’re designed to test the player’s smarts rather than lightning-quick reflexes and endurance. The game’s camera system shines during these segments, furnishing nice breaks from the usual angles by switching to a sidescrolling perspective or tracking the player’s movement through deadly ring-shaped paths.

Aside from the game’s normal difficulty Samurai II offers a “Ronin” mode for truly masochistic challenge seekers and a “Dojo” mode. Despite its training connotation, the latter really appears to be a deathmatch with infinitely spawning foes. Real training exercises take the form of revisiting completed stages from the game’s main menu. The ability to revisit cleared levels might seem like a quaint afterthought at first, but it’s functionally useful here because the game’s meaty 10 hour length lends itself to long breaks that might take the edge off a player’s finely honed swordsmanship. Revisiting earlier stages is an effective way to get reacquainted before jumping back into one of the later levels.

Screenshots and video released during Samurai II‘s development obviously attest to its jaw-droppingly lush cel-shaded visuals. Parents should be aware that there’s lots and lots and lots of blood and chopped body parts flying around the screen during combat. While artfully executed, it makes the game questionable for the consumption of little’uns. The ability to switch background music on and off is actually missed here because Samurai II‘s soundtrack consists of instrumental ambience that can wear thin during the longer stages, but the music is so understated that it’s barely noticed beneath any iTunes track that might be laid over it.

iFanzine Verdict: Aside from a mild interface learning curve Samurai II: Vengeanceis a slick, meaty ride worth every penny of its sale price. It strikes a rare balance of challenging-but-fair gameplay that will no doubt appeal to action game veterans. Adventurous fans of other genres will no doubt be pulled in by its sheer beauty, but bear in mind that its last few levels are designed with the hardcore action game fan in mind. If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to jump into the pages of your favorite stylish samurai flick, manga, comic, or TV show, MADFINGER is ready to show you.

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